Life is filled with surprises and uncertainties. But as Barack Obama’s renomination approaches, one thing seems pretty clear: the president is headed for reelection. This is no small feat in a system that produced only sixteen two-term presidents (only thirteen actually served out their terms). But greatness in the presidency? That was never in Obama’s future, and perhaps it is not for his successors either.
The reason for this state of affairs tells us a fair amount not just about this particular election but also about the presidency in general.
First, what of the current president’s prospects? I’ll leave the microanalysis, the electoral-college math and projections of voter turnout to the experts. My prediction about Obama’s reelection hinges on three thoroughly unscientific observations:
1. We’re reelecting flawed and imperfect presidents.
Reelection is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for greatness in the presidency. James Polk notwithstanding, we’ve never had a truly great one-term president. But we certainly had more than a few two termers who didn’t quite measure up to that standard. Obama’s own quip to Diane Sawyer way back in 2009 that he’d rather be a good one termer than a feckless eight-year man was actually rather silly. Truly consequential presidents need the reaffirming bond with the public. It’s part of the great president’s job description.
Obama may become part of a more recent pattern of giving the incumbent the benefit of the doubt. A set of three presidents is hardly statistically valid. But the last two reelected presidents—Bill Clinton and George W. Bush—were hardly in the water-walker category. The first enough Americans seemed to forgive because he was such a likeable guy and times were good. And the second Americans reelected probably because he was strong in the wake of 9/11 and his 2004 opponent, John Kerry, was such a weak candidate.
The point is that neither Clinton nor Bush was anything close to a great president, and yet with all their imperfections, enough Americans said “OK” to another four years.
Part of the answer is that incumbents are hard to beat, to be sure. But something else is going on, too. As we watch our politics at all levels melt down and listen to the cable and talk-radio media circus making it worse, we crave a measure of stability and predictability in the one and only office that we all can choose.
With all its flaws and inflated expectations, the presidency has become the last repository of second chances. We’re frustrated with our presidents, but we’re ready to forgive and, of course, hope for better days.
It’s striking to consider that if Obama is reelected, it will only be the second time in our history that we’ve had three different two-term presidents in a row. The last such sequence was Jefferson, Madison and Monroe.
2. It’s not just the economy, stupid.
Why isn’t President Obama trailing Mitt Romney by twenty points? The experts tell us that no president has won reelection with unemployment numbers this high since FDR. And to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen in the 1988 vice-presidential debates when Dan Quayle compared himself implicitly to JFK, Obama is no Franklin Roosevelt. Considering the condition of the country—debt, deficits, polarization, the approaching fiscal cliff—why isn’t the Republican challenger heading toward a big win?
Part of the answer is that we’re a deeply divided country. But I think there’s something else going on, too. If this president has any real advantage, particularly with the economy in the tank, it’s his personal appeal and likeability. And the polls bear this out. He’s no Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton, and in many ways is really more the antipolitician—too private, professorial and pensive to be wildly popular. Indeed, Obama’s affability coexists with an aloofness and a detached quality.
At the same time, Obama comes across as a sentient human being—responsive and empathetic without being self-conscious. He’s relaxed, natural, rarely stiff and awkward without any sense of being coached or directed. Indeed, he moves smoothly—even gracefully—exuding confidence, like an athlete.
The fact is when Americans vote for president, they vote for someone they’re figuratively making part of their lives and inviting into their living rooms for a considerable period of time. And that someone has to be real, authentic and comfortable in his or her own skin—and be able to make Americans feel good about being in theirs too.
3. The GOP fielded an uninspiring candidate.
Mitt Romney is a decent, intelligent and very successful man with a great deal of experience. The republic would survive his presidency and, who knows, might benefit, too. But that Obama and Romney are running so close in this kind of economy says more about Romney’s lackluster performance as a candidate than about Obama’s time as president.
The Republican Party is in a kind of crisis. It’s never recovered from its love affair with Reagan’s charisma and authenticity. It’s s gone through two members of the Bush family, John McCain and Sarah Palin, as well as an unimpressive parade of presidential wannabes during the recent primaries. Thus Romney’s task—keeping the party’s base intact while reaching out to independents—seems almost impossible.
Romney’s personal style makes it all the harder. In contrast to Obama’s self-awareness, Romney often seems out of sync and out of place. Stiff and awkward, he has a tough time connecting. And connection with Americans who are hurting is key. Both Obama and Romney represent the elite of the elites, but Romney seems unable to shake the rich-guy image. In choosing Paul Ryan as a running mate, Romney selected a guy whose background is more common than his own and who is much closer to the heartland experience of many Americans, yet Ryan’s views on Medicare and social security make him easy to paint as insensitive to the needs of that same constituency.
More important is whether Mitt Romney has identified a credible and compelling plan to fix what Obama has not. Frankly, what ails America now may be beyond the prescriptions of either man. But I’d give the edge to the president here.
When Americans vote for president, they ask themselves two questions: First, is the guy in office really responsible for my misery? And if the answer is yes, then does the other guy really have a plan to make it better? I’m betting that even if a lot of Americans say yes to number one, the answer to number two is probably no. If the economy doesn’t worsen appreciably before November—or even shows some tentative signs of improvement—it will be Obama on points.
Can Obama still be a great president?
If you asked the president, he’d probably say yes—particularly in the event he’s actually reelected and becomes a member of that elite club of sixteen. In a remarkable interview with 60 Minutes, Obama gave himself high marks: “I would put our legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president—with the possible exception of Johnson, FDR, and Lincoln—just in terms what we’ve gotten done in modern history.” So that makes Barack Obama, according to himself, the fourth most consequential president in American history?
We admire self-confidence in the presidents, and being president is pretty heady stuff. After all, Obama chose to be sworn in on the Lincoln bible, dined on Mary Todd Lincoln’s china at his postinaugural lunch, where the menu was a recreation of what Lincoln ate, right down to the sour cherry chutney. That Barack Obama entered office as a historic figure at a decisive moment is undeniable. He was the first African American president with the biggest majority of any Democrat since LBJ confronting the two longest wars in American history and the country’s gravest economic crisis since the 1930s.
But with skyrocketing expectations for competence and change, particularly against fatigue and hostility toward the Bush 43 presidency, there was no way Obama could have measured up, and he didn’t—certainly not in the eyes of a Republican party determined to sink him or a democratic base that wanted a heroic liberal rescue from a guy who didn’t have that kind of fire in his belly.
Greatness has eluded Obama both because of who he was and the times he inherited. Great presidents are called to guide the nation through an existential crisis, muster bipartisan support and in the process transform the nation forever. But perhaps that just isn’t possible anymore. The 24/7 media forces the president to expose himself and in doing so trivializes him and strips away the mystique and privacy required for real authority, making it hard to even look the part.
President Obama couldn’t see any of this, tried to become a postpartisan president in the shark-infested waters of Washington and initially created unrealistic expectations. Did the nation want a transformer or just a transactor to take care of business, someone to deliver it from two profitless wars and an economy that was structurally broken? And was this deliverance even possible? What we expect from our presidents should be limited given the inherent limitations of the office and the nature of the challenges we confront.